We were a brand-new firm when a man named Mark King came in for a consultation. Mark told me a terrible story that I had already seen in the news. The story is still available here.
The article does not give all the facts, but I learned them in detail over the last two years as I prosecuted Mr. King's civil case.
Three young men, Trent James Henrickson (18), Christopher Short (20), and Brandon Canada Johnson (16) apparently had nothing better to do on July 8, 2014, so they went looking for homosexuals to victimize.
Responding to Mark's personal ad on Craigslist, Trent posted his photo and told Mark he was interested in meeting. Mark went to Trail Canyon Park (less than a mile from the home where I grew up in Green Valley) and was met by Trent, Christopher, and Brandon.
The three of them took Mark to an abandoned house nearby, tied him up with bungee cords, beat him until he was unconscious, then took his wallet, keys, and cellphone. He went in and out of unconsciousness, during which time they beat him some more, threatened him with a knife to coerce his debit PIN out of him, and told him if he was there when they got back, they would kill him. He passed out again.
When Mark woke up what he estimates to be one to two hours later, he was alone, bloody, and tied up on the floor. The only thing his assailants had left him (stupidly) was his OnStar card. He managed to get himself loose, then tried to wash himself up, only to realize that the water was not on in the house. Instead of water, he found some lotion and did the best he could to use it to wash the blood off.
He was afraid there might be people out front, so he headed towards the back, but not before grabbing a piece of old mail off the kitchen table so he would have a record of the address.
He went out the back door, still disoriented from the attack, and went the long way around to his car, which was no longer there. So he walked the half mile down to the Henderson auto mall where he was able to find someone to help. The employees at Henderson Chevrolet called the police.
Using the OnStar card, the police were able to disable the vehicle and locate it. It was about a mile away at the corner of Stephanie and Wigwam.
All three assailants were arrested.
When Mark told me this story, my legal mind immediately recognized two salient facts: (1) this was an easy case for liability, and (2) there was very little chance we would ever be able to collect anything because these three kids probably didn't have very much money and certainly weren't able to acquire much as they rotted in jail.
However, I had compassion on Mark and really wanted to do what I could to help him, and agreed to take his case.
I watched as he courageously confronted his attackers when he testified in front of them at the arraignment hearing (they were in orange and shackled at the defense table). I also witnessed to some degree over two years how this affected his life. He lost his job. He lost weight. He lost his vehicle, and could no longer afford a phone. I can only imagine how these visible indices reflected what must have been very difficult and very real changes in his life.
In the meantime, it should have been an easy case. The district attorney was prosecuting the three with vigor, and any criminal conviction could be used in my case. But there were many complications along the way.
For one, we couldn't identify Brandon Canada Johnson (whose name I love to repeat in full because I am in awe of his middle name). He was a minor, so his prosecution was sealed, and the district attorney would not (could not) tell me his name. Fortunately, the judge in his case decided he should be tried as an adult, so he lost his protection of anonymity, and we added him to the lawsuit.
We hit a bit of a snag when Brandon Canada Johnson's parents hired an attorney who called and had a lot of words to share, but nothing really to say that wasn't bluster. Turns out the "attorney" wasn't really an attorney at all (or at least his license was suspended at the time) but was disgraced former attorney Barry Levinson, who for whatever reason was still representing clients (after calling his employer, I was informed in no uncertain terms that he was not handling the case himself and was being heavily supervised) even though he had no license, was under federal investigation, and within months would be sentenced to eight years in prison, begin his sentence, and ultimately pass away. But that's a whole other story. (I had my first trial against Barry Levinson—a justice court case that resulted in a $1,200 judgment for my client plus $19,000 in attorney's fees.)
Ultimately, neither Barry Levinson or anyone else at the firm he was working for answered the complaint we filed, so Brandon Canada Johnson did not end up having any representation nor mounting any defense. Christopher Short similarly failed to defend himself.
Not Trent Henrickson, though. He mailed us a handwritten answer, though he forgot (or more likely didn't know he was supposed to) file it with the court. We sent him a polite letter informing him of his obligations, so he handwrite another answer and filed it with the court. (It's a simple thing, but the thought of him having to handwrite his answer twice gave me a small measure of pleasure.)
And that simple filing—which ended up being the only thing he did in the whole case—caused severe delay.
Now that he had appeared in the case, I was required to hold an early case conference with him (where we discuss and agree on the discovery schedule, among other things). We sent him letters and tried calling the Clark County Detention Center, but he never responded, and we never got through to him, so we submitted our case conference report to the discovery commissioner without his signature.
This, as it often does, resulted in being hailed into her courtroom to explain why we didn't have his participation. At that hearing, the Discovery Commissioner instructed me to actually go to the jail and meet with Mr. Henrickson, which I was not too eager to do, but I evidently had no choice in the matter.
That same day I obediently went and sat down with a very pleasant (i.e. not pleasant at all) Trent Henrickson, who told me he was going to beat his criminal case, and he had no doubt he could beat this one, too.
He would not sign off on the conference report, so I had to again go in and see the discovery commissioner and explain my inability to get his signature.
And of course, all this took several months.
She ordered him to submit a case conference report or risk losing the case for the procedural defect. He mailed us one, but again did not submit it to her. On his handwritten attempt at a case conference report, he left me a very friendly sticky note:
I can only guess what his motives were for sending that note, but I am guessing he wasn't betting on making it really easy for me to decide what to use as Exhibit 1 to my Motion for Summary Judgment.
Two of the defendants had never answered, and one wasn't participating (meaningfully) in the case, so I decided it was time to try to close this case with a couple case-ending motions.
I filed a motion for summary judgment against Henrickson (we show the court our evidence and asked, based on the weight of the evidence, to allow us to take judgment against the defendant without having to go to trial). The most compelling evidence I had against Henrickson didn't turn out to be the note (which itself is not really helpful in proving the case, but certainly does a great job of providing unimpeachable character evidence) but surfaced in the months between my meeting with him and my motion: his conviction for 6–15 years to the Ely Maximum State Prison for kidnapping, two counts of robbery, and grand-larceny auto.
When someone can prove to the beyond-a-reasonable-doubt standard (or someone pleads guilty, as was the case here) that certain facts are true, I can use that evidence in my case, which has the much lower preponderance-of-the-evidence standard.
So that's what I did.
We easily go the summary judgment, but had to have an evidentiary hearing to prove what the case was worth.
In the meantime, we were moving forward with a judgment against the other two, who hadn't participated in the case at all. This proved much easier, because it was a win by forfeit.
I submitted my motion and had the default judgment hearing scheduled. All I needed was to gather the physical evidence and have Mark testify.
There were two problems with that: I couldn't get the physical evidence, and I could not find Mark.
All of Mark's hospital bills and wage records were in possession of the federal government. Mark is a former marine, so he was treated at the VA hospital and was employed by the commissary. But the federal government, if it doesn't want to, doesn't respond to subpoenas and record requests the way the rest of the civilized world does (and must).
So a week before our hearing, I only had evidence of $26.20 of losses.
Also, Mark was not responding to emails, and his phone had been disconnected.
I was a little panicky.
I couldn't solve the first problem in time (the lack of hard evidence), but I could do something about finding Mark.
I ran a personal background check on him with the same software we use to track down hit-and-run drivers and hard-to-serve defendants. We got lucky and found his roommate's phone number, and so I met with Mark and prepared him for the hearing so he would know what to expect.
Except after meeting with him I was even more nervous about the hearing because Mark is very soft spoken and often hard to understand. I'm not sure if it was his nervousness or a product of the damage they did to him, but I started getting nervous again.
It was my plan after meeting with him to ask the court for $26.20 in medical specials, $992 in lost wages (which we couldn't substantiate with records, but at least had Mark's testimony), $600 for the loss of his phone (which he never got back), $600 to the damage to his car (the idiots ripped the OnStar buttons out thinking the would disable the GPS), $627 in costs we'd expended prosecuting the case, $100,000 in pain and suffering, and $300,000 in punitive damages.
When we got to the hearing, though, Judge Crockett called us up, and the first thing he told me that my evidence was "sketchy," and we would need to have an evidentiary hearing. I told him we were prepared to do that, and he invited us to sit down until he had finished with everyone else, and then he'd give us that opportunity.
Oh also, conveniently for me, I was supposed to be teaching my UNLV class that morning, so instead of missing it, I invited the students to attend. So now they were primed and ready to see why all I had was sketchy evidence.
I sat down and told Mark we didn't want to come off looking greedy (and the "sketchy evidence" comment from the judge diminished my confidence) so maybe $50,000 in pain and suffering and $150,000 in punitive damages would be better. He acceded.
When it was our turn, I called Mark up, and he took his spot on the witness stand and raised his hand to get sworn in. The court clerk started swearing him in but forgot the words ("Do you swear or affirm that the testimony you are about to give is the truth, the whole truth, and nothing but the truth?"), so she stopped and went looking for them. I was embarrassed for her, and in the meantime, Mark wasn't sure what to do after several awkward moments, so he just waited with his hand raised until I told him he could put it down. We weren't off to a terrific start.
After he was sworn in, I started asking him questions. At first, his story was a little hard to follow, and he was hard to understand, but within just a couple of minutes, the whole atmosphere of the court changed. Mark recounted the experience in vivid detail. Mark told about his head injury. About his broken ribs. And most of all, the psychological trauma he had been enduring over the last two years as he repeatedly relived the experience. Some of those present in the courtroom were moved to tears.
After I was done with my questions, Judge Crockett asked several personal questions and tried to get to know Mark better. It was a very compassionate interview. Then Mark took a seat next to me, and I began my arguments.
After such compelling testimony, I felt emboldened and asked the court for all the itemized damages (totaling just over $2,000) plus $200,000 in pain and suffering and $600,000 in punitive damages.
Judge Crockett then took over. He smiled at me knowingly, then turned his attention to Mark. He awarded all the smaller damages I asked for then calculated Mark's yearly wage and his work-life expectancy (to age 65). Then he awarded $250,000 in past pain and suffering, $500,000 in future pain and suffering, $445,000 in future lost wages, attorney's fees of $25,000, and pre-judgment and post-judgment interest. The total award was $1.227 million.
I had never seen Mark smile before, but he was beaming the whole way out of the courtroom.
When I got back to the office, I had a message for me from Judge Crockett's assistant. She told me that Judge Crockett had forgotten to include punitive damages in his award at the hearing, and that when I wrote up my judgment, I should include $1,000,000 in punitive damages to it. The new total was $2.227 million.
All three defendants are in jail and will be for some time. But this judgment, which accrues interest at an amount of $380 per day, is a judgment for fraud (among other things), which means that the judgment can't be discharged in bankruptcy. So even if it will be impossible to collect it all, with patience, we'll be able to collect some of it. And so over their lifetimes, even after their prison sentences are over, Trent, Christopher, and Brandon, will be able to slowly repay Mark for what they did.
More importantly, though, at least for me, was that Mark had his day in court. What Judge Crockett did for Mark was send him a very powerful message that Mark matters. That his case was all about him, and the court wanted him to know that when he suffers, the system cares. As Mark all but floated down those eleven stories from the courtroom to the outside exit, he felt special, and he felt important.
And he is.